North Texas Daily

Interview: Markus Zusak, Geoffrey Rush & Cast on “The Book Thief”

Interview: Markus Zusak, Geoffrey Rush & Cast on “The Book Thief”

Interview: Markus Zusak, Geoffrey Rush & Cast on “The Book Thief”
November 26
20:26 2013

Preston Barta / Film Critic

After holding its regional premiere two weeks ago at the Lone Star Film Festival and opening in limited release, “The Book Thief,” is finally getting the release it deserves. But before you see this wonderfully nuanced film, read our interviews with the cast and filmmakers.

The North Texas Daily had the opportunity to sit down with international best-selling author Markus Zusak, who wrote the staggering novel the film is based on; the film’s director, Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”); and its stars, Sophie Nélisse (“Monsieur Lazhar,” 2011) and Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” 2003).

Markus, this is probably a question that you get asked a lot, but I know a lot of people that are curious, what was the key message that you were trying to convey with your book?

Markus Zusak: “You never know that when you start writing. I should know it now. But I suppose that’s the good thing about being a writer— you have 560 pages to say it’s all there. But in this case, the hardest question is always answering what’s your book about. For me, this was a book about a time and place where people were destroying people with words, and a girl who’s stealing the words back and writing her own story, and it’s a beautiful story. What’s the message? Maybe it’s that stories really make us who we are— the stories we read and the stories we write and the stories we make. And it’s a question of what are our stories going to be each and every day, and what decisions are we going to make within that story.”

How well did the film align with your novel? 

Zusak: “I always wanted the film to be itself. I can think of nothing worse than giving a creative job to someone and saying, ‘be creative with this but do it how I want you to do it.’ To me, it’s almost like a translation in many ways. There’s color in the way Hans (Rush) plays the accordion. There’s great color for me, as the writer of the book, in the Kristallnacht scene, where the kids are angelically singing while everything is happening in Stuttgart. And it’s in the performances as well— just one stare from Emily Watson’s character. To me there’s a great color in the slap [Rush] caught on the back of the head from her— such a sad, tough scene, and yet you get these two opposites coming together. That’s what I loved doing in the writing— bringing opposites together, and I love the way the film has those comparative moods as well.”

Brian Percival: “I never wanted to make a somber film. I wanted to get across some of the spirit of the people in that community. I didn’t want it to be drab or gray or gritty. Those people didn’t have a great deal in terms of material life, but as a child I remembered it as being a rich time, in terms of spirit, rich in the formative sense.

So we talked about this with the production designer. I didn’t want to make it colorful, because that wouldn’t feel right. So somehow we had to retain its dignity and its humble nature but have a richness and depth about it that we found interesting and beautiful to look at. That’s how that look came about— from my own childhood.”

Geoffrey, how did you construct the character Hans?

Geoffrey Rush: “When I read the screenplay, I absorb the emotional impact of the storyline. And then the next phase is looking at what he does. He has an emotional intelligence, and he has natural grief-counseling capabilities but he’s not a qualified therapist who’s got a degree. He’s just a human being who looks out for other people and takes on the plight of this newly arrived foster daughter. I looked at those things and tried to highlight what value they would best contribute to the emotional temperature of the whole landscape of the film.”

Sophie, because you’re only 13-years-old, and this film was probably shot over a year or two ago, I am curious if you were familiar with the Holocaust before taking the role?

Sophie Nélisse: “We’ve never really learned about the Holocaust in school. We read Karen Levine’s ‘Hana’s Suitcase,’ and that was the only thing I knew. So I had to watch a lot of movies— all great movies, like ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘The Pianist,’ ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ and ‘Life Is Beautiful.’

And it was really great that the film was shot in Berlin, because everywhere you go there’s still a feel to it in the city, and everywhere you walk there are walls with information saying what happened, the facts of history. I went to see the movie with my best friend two weeks ago, and she’s really smart, but she didn’t understand everything. And that showed me how my generation, the kids my age, don’t know enough about what happened.”

One of my favorite lines in the film, as well as the novel, is, “When life robs you, sometimes you have to rob it back.” If, hypothetically, the world decided to burn every piece of literature ever written, what would be that one book that you would save from the fire?

Zusak: “Whoa—“

Nélisse: “Ooh, I know.”

Percival: “What’s that?”

Rush: “A Fireman’s Manual.”

[All laugh].

Zusak: “I think I am going to jump in. Obviously you can go to a personal favorite, but I think you got to go for the book that everyone else will save. You hear from people who work for the fire department— you see a tower burning, and everyone looks at it, assuming that someone called the fire brigade, and no one has. So since I am here in American and not in my home in Australia, and in southern America, you would probably have to take a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Just in case someone else didn’t grab it in the remotest chance.”

Rush: “I have no answer for a question like that. There is not one particular book. You know, I would just run to the pile and maybe urinate on the fire, or something like that. Put it out and save as many as I can.”

Nélisse: “I think I would save the story that I read when I was like two. It was about a race between a tortoise and a hare— the hare falls asleep and the turtle wins the competition.”

Percival: “I’d have to side with Geoffrey on this. I could not narrow it down.”

Zusak: “Would you be having a chat while you, you know?”

Rush: “Yeah, yeah.”

“The Book Thief” is currently playing in Dallas, and opens at Carmike Hickory Creek 16 tomorrow.

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